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It is believed that the Algonquian nation absorbed the Roanoke colonists (William Cullen Bryant and Sydney Howard Gay / Public Domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: New Excavation Might Reveal Fate of Lost Colony of Roanoke

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Recent excavations on Roanoke Island, North Carolina have revealed new evidence that may help archaeologists and historians determine the ultimate fate of the now-famous “lost colony” of Roanoke. The island, site of the earliest efforts by the English to colonize North America, vanished without a trace more than four centuries ago.

It seems the Roanoke colonists had direct interactions with Algonquian peoples who lived on the island right beside them, either trading with them or possibly integrating with them once they realized they couldn’t survive on their own. And it is these Algonquian priests who may hold the key.

The evidence in question was unearthed during excavations carried out by the North Carolina-based First Colony Foundation. This coalition of historians and archaeologists is dedicated to finding ruins and artifacts connected with efforts by the famed Sir Walter Raleigh and other English explorers to settle the eastern coast of the Americas during the latter half of the 16th century.

The focus of this research has been Roanoke Island, which can be found just off the northeastern coastline of North Carolina. It is here that that what came to be known as the lost colony of Roanoke was established in 1587, by a group of about 100 English settlers led by Governor John White, who had been appointed to that position by Queen Elizabeth I.

Sir Walter Raleigh himself had attempted to start a colony on the island three years earlier, but his efforts were aborted in the face of resistance from local Native American peoples. But it was the later colony which went down in history for disappearing without trace.

It is believed that the Algonquian nation absorbed the Roanoke colonists (William Cullen Bryant and Sydney Howard Gay / Public Domain)

Excavations under the auspices of the Forst Colony Foundation have been ongoing since 2004. Over the last two decades archaeologists have poured over the small island, which is just eight miles (13 kilometers) long and about two miles (3.2 kilometers) wide, with the proverbial fine-tooth comb.

They have been searching for relics or ruins left behind by the doomed English settlers, or by Native American peoples that lived on the island or visited it during the time when the lost colony was initially formed, seeking clues that would explain why the colony was abandoned, and where its occupants went.

Side by Side on Roanoke Island

The most recent explorations took place at the site of a 16th century indigenous community that was excavated near the modern Roanoke Island village of Manteo, at a botanical preserve known as the Elizabethan Gardens. This Native American settlement was first identified just last year, when archaeologists dug up pieces of pottery and a ring made from copper wire they were able to link to the Algonquian people.

The pieces of pottery were eventually dated to the 1500s. As for the copper ring, it was believed to have been worn as an earring.

“Finding domestic pottery—the type used for cooking—in close proximity to an apparent piece of Native American jewelry strongly confirms we are digging in the midst of a settlement,” Dr. Eric Klingelhofer, the First Colony Foundation’s Vice President of Research, said in a statement issued by his employer.

“The copper ring indicates contact with the English,” he confirmed, noting that it was made from drawn copper, of the type manufactured and used by 16th century Europeans. There weren’t any French or Spanish traders in the area at this time, so if the Algonquians traded for this item it would have had to have come from the English settlers.

Excavations hoping to solve the mystery of Roanoke are underway at Manteo Gardens (Ken Lund / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Excavations hoping to solve the mystery of Roanoke are underway at Manteo Gardens (Ken Lund / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Roanoke Island archaeological community already knew about the existence of this Native American village, from the descriptions of early English explorers. But they weren’t entirely sure where it was located, until now.

Continuing excavations have unearthed evidence that the Algonquian village was palisaded, or surrounded with high wooden walls. It seems there were nine houses built inside those walls, which the research team believes would have belonged to elite warriors or other aristocrats. The bulk of the village’s population apparently lived outside the village walls, on the land they farmed.

“We’re beginning to see that this site was more of a capital with a tribal seat where a ruler or chief lived, and it would be palisaded to keep him safe,” Dr. Klingelhofer said.  The archaeologist explained that this ruler would have been in command of a people spread out over a much larger territory, one that included all of Roanoke Island and sections of the adjacent mainland as well.

“The new findings confirm a theory that matches what we know of the village,” Klingelhofer explained. “It was described as a palisaded village because the explorers came here and recorded it. And these findings add to our story.”

So, What Really Happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke?

The colony on Roanoke island was plagued in the early going by resource and manpower shortages. The last was a security concern, as relations with some of the region’s Native American peoples were not entirely friendly. This motivated Governor John White to leave his colony not long after it was formed to return to England, to request more support from Queen Elizabeth I and her regime’s financiers.

White’s return to the colony on Roanoke Island was delayed by encounters with the Spanish armada, and it took him until 1590 until he finally made it back with vitally needed men and supplies. But to White’s shock, he found the English settlement completely deserted. There were no signs of violence, but the people and their possessions were all gone, and among those who had apparently abandoned the settlement were his wife and children.

The only clue about what had happened to the settlers was in the form of a single word carved into the wood of a post on the village perimeter: CROATOAN. The first three letters of this word were also carved into a tree, but beyond this there were no other messages left at the site.

The carvings presumably referred to Croatoan Island, which was located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the south of Roanoke Island. The obvious assumption was that the people had gone there, but why they hadn’t left a longer message to explain their actions wasn’t clear.

Unfortunately, terrible storms forced White and his crew to return to England before they could travel to Croatoan Island to look for the lost settlers, who from that point on were destined to remain lost forever.

To this very day no one knows for sure what happened, although the most popular working theory is that the settlers gave up trying to survive on their own and left voluntarily to integrate with friendly Native American groups, if not on Croatoan Island, where the supposedly hospitable Hatteras people lived, then perhaps elsewhere. Based on the findings at the nearby Algonquian village, it’s possible the settlers sought the assistance of this group and never actually left Roanoke Island, meaning John White and his crew might have found them eventually if they hadn’t been forced to return to England before they could mount an extensive search.

It is far from certain that the settlers ended up merging with Native Americans. When White took longer than expected to return they may have panicked and attempted to sail back to England, or to Croatoan Island, only to perish in the treacherous seas before they could reach their intended destination. They might have been kidnapped and carried off into exile by a hostile group of Native Americans, possibly by the Hatteras people, which would explain why they only had time to scratch out the word CROATOAN once in its complete form before they were forced to leave.

What the latest findings show is that the colonists did form some type of relationship with the local Algonquian settlement during the time John White was away. The First Colony Foundation archaeologists plan to continue their excavations at the Elizabethan Gardens site later this year, searching for more evidence of contact and possibly for signs that the lost colonists actually integrated with the Algonquian people rather than just trading with them.

Excavations will also be launched at other Native American sites in the region as well, including on the nearby mainland, as the archaeologists searching for evidence of the lost colonists’ movements and interactions with indigenous populations are determined to leave no stone unturned.

Top image: The colony of Roanoke entirely vanished save for a single cryptic carving of the word “CROATAN”. A new excavation might just have found out what happened. Source: John White / Public Domain.

By Nathan Falde





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